Q: How do we go about evaluating our pastor?

A: For pastoral evaluation to help, rather than harm, the mutual ministry of the pastor, the board, and the congregation, it is important to remember several key principles:

1. The purpose of evaluation is to increase the value of ministry, not to give the pastor a report card.

Much harm has often been done when a congregation sends out a “customer satisfaction” survey to rate the performance of the pastor. The pastor may get a good grade or a bad grade but probably will not get the kind of useful constructive feedback that would help the pastor grow and develop. The assumption behind such surveys is consumerism: that the church members are “customers” and that the pastor is an “employee” instead of the Christian assumption that this is a mutual covenant relationship in the body of Christ between disciples and their pastor.

2. Evaluation of the performance of tasks is most likely to bear fruit if the pastor takes the initiative and responsibility to design and manage the process.  For example, if I as a pastor want to increase the value of my preaching, I might call together three or four of the wisest and most insightful members of the congregation and ask them to listen carefully and take notes on my next three sermons.  I might even ask them to notice specific things like:

• Does the sermon illuminate and clarify the meaning of the scripture passage?
• Could they follow the transitions from one point to another?
• Were my illustrations appropriate?
• Did I communicate at a feeling level or was it like an academic lecture?
• Did the sermon connect to real concerns in their daily life?

People are most likely to give me candid feedback if they know that I am asking for it and that I want them to tell me what I need to hear, not just what I want to hear. And I am most likely to hear what they have to say if I am the one asking for it.

After I complete the evaluation I can discuss with my trusted church board what I learned and how I plan to respond. 

3. Roles and relationships are more important than the performance of tasks.

The heart of pastoral ministry is to BE in a certain role in the life of the congregation and to BE in right relationship with the members. Being matters more than doing.  I knew a congregation of 2,500 members that had a pastor who was a fair, but not a great, preacher. However, he was such an authentic and transparent person that he powerfully mediated the graceful presence of God wherever he went. He was really present in times of suffering and death as well as times of celebration and joy. That’s one big reason the congregation had so many members.

4. Leadership is a partnership between clergy and laity—a covenant relationship requires mutual self assessment.

Over the years we have drifted into a model of church that is overly clergy centered and overly clergy dependent. I even hear people talk as if the entire destiny of their congregation depends on whether the pastor has it all together. And frequently the pastor is the only one who needs to be “held accountable.” We say that we can’t really hold laity accountable because they are “just volunteers.”  But when Jesus called the disciples, I wonder if they perceived themselves as “volunteers.”

In 1977, Robert Greenleaf wrote a profound book entitled Servant Leadership. One of his insights was that healthy organizations need two parallel columns of leadership—the executive function and the trustee function.  A congregation with a strong pastor and a weak board will suffer. A congregation with a weak pastor and a strong board will suffer. What is needed is a strong pastor with a strong board who learn how to collaborate and to hold themselves and each other accountable for doing together what they cannot do separately.

If pastor and board are partners in leadership, what sense does it make for one partner to unilaterally evaluate the other. Shouldn’t both partners engage in a mutual self-assessment? Together they should ask “How are we doing?” If in some areas of the congregation’s life “we aren’t doing so well,” what initiatives should the pastor take and what initiatives should the board take? The relationship between pastor and board is a mutualrelationship for which they are mutually accountable.

One of the biggest challenges facing many congregations is this: How can the church board be developed into a cohesive, high trust, high energy, creative leadership team that is capable of partnering with the pastor in leading the  congregation. Unless this happens, the pastor is left to be a solo leader like the “Lone Ranger” or else there is no leadership at all.

Edward A. White is an Alban consultant specializing in strategic planning, conflict management, and leadership development. He is also the author of Saying Goodbye: A Time of Growth for Congregations and Pastors (Alban Institute, 1990).